What A Social NUI Is (And Why Developers Should Care)

Microsoft has partnered with the University of Melbourne to launch an $8 million joint venture, the awkwardly-titled Microsoft Research Centre For Social Natural User Interfaces. That might be a name only a mother could love, but the concept of a “social natural user interface” (or social NUI for short) is likely to be increasingly important as a means of interacting with devices.

Rather than relying on what’s on the screen, a “natural user interface” uses other elements familiar from human interaction: voice, gesture, where you’re looking, body movements and touch. As Microsoft Research’s Dr Tony Hey explained at the launch in Melbourne today: “NUIs are technologies that draw on our existing human capabilities for interaction with the physical world.”

A quarter of a century of active use of graphical user interfaces (GUIs) has made them a familiar area for developers, and one where most elements are easily implemented through existing libraries. But just as the GUI largely supplanted the command line outside of seriously geeky environments, the NUI might take over as our dominant means of interaction with many technologies.

“In 1984 GUIs were on the fringe of computing,” the centre’s inaugural director associate professor Frank Vetere (pictured above) said at the launch. “Those interested in serious computing wouldn’t have bothered with GUIs. They were for children and amateurs.”

The same pattern is now evident with NUIs, he suggested. “Few people were aware of NUIs in 2010, and not many more are aware of them now. The NUI of today is typically considered a plaything for young people. NUIs are mostly considered toys for children and gamers.”

While many of these elements are available on computers and phones, they’re rarely used in conjunction. The concept of a “social NUI” brings all of them together, using a device such as Microsoft’s Kinect, to create an entirely new means of interacting with technology.

Conventions in this area aren’t well-established, and there’s relatively little research on how people react to these kinds of interface. Researching those areas will be a key challenge for the new centre, which will also work in conjunction with existing Microsoft Research facilities in Cambridge, Beijing and the USA. “The centre is here to stimulate our imagination, so that the social element of NUIs becomes self-evident,” Vetere said.

We shouldn’t underestimate how difficult this task is. Many Xbox One owners are currently complaining about how the Kinect integration is unreliable or buggy, so there’s a lot of work to be done before we can truly rely on these technologies. From that perspective alone, more research is welcome.

Disclosure: Angus Kidman travelled to Melbourne as a guest of Microsoft.